Last weekend, I graduated from Carnegie Mellon University. It was a weekend packed with lots of family and lots of ceremonies: I was inducted to Phi Beta Kappa, I received University Honors, Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences Honors, Interdisciplinary College Honors, and College of Fine Arts Honors. I was also invited to speak at the BXA graduation. A copy of my speech is below.
BXA Diploma Ceremony Speech
Surprise, Mom, I’m speaking at graduation. Everyone else, if you don’t already know me, my name is Sara Keats and I am a BXA in dramaturgy and creative writing.
It is so nice to not to have to explain what a BXA is.
The coolest thing about the BXA program is the great variety of interests and fields of study in this room. But of course the one commonality between all of our degrees is our focus on the arts. I don’t need to preach to you about the importance of employing art to critique society. But I do think it’s worth exploring how art can simply make the world the better place. I know that’s a cliché, but that’s really what I believe.
Last year, Gavin Witt visited the dramaturgy department and said something that really stuck with me. He talked about how artists cannot create without empathy.
Imagine: You’re watching a production of Romeo and Juliet. And you yourself are not a 14 (?) year old virgin living in 15th, or 16th century Verona. But when Juliet’s parents are all like, “Hey, your cousin just died and now you’ve got to marry this Paris dude in two (?) days,” and you know she just found out Romeo is banished from city, you feel kind of bad for her. If the production is good, you might feel really bad for her.
If your work is thought provoking, or inspiring or beautiful, it’s because you as an artist are willing to participate in a conversation. Meaningful, perspective-shifting conversations require respect, and respect comes out of empathy.
I was thinking about how this whole arts-empathy connection plays into an interdisciplinary degree that focuses on art and something else. What does it mean to say, “I have a degree in art and—whatever!”?
It means your brain can be in two places at once. Each of your concentrations provides it’s own set of terms and utilizes different methodologies and approaches. Each half of your degree insists on it’s own world-view. The ability to synthesis and reconcile two perspectives is a valuable skill.
We’ve all had practice talking about the professional and academic benefits of an interdisciplinary education. Now, as the formal trajectory of our undergraduate education comes to a close, I think it’s important to reflect on how that ability to think and feel from multiple points of view can remind us to be kind and understanding. We as artists, and thinkers, and scientists have a responsibility to apply the tactics of communicating between disciplines to our relationships with other people.
Changing the way people interact is a daunting task. Maybe it’s naïve to imagine that our code, and our paintings, and our papers, and our research can really shape a more empathetic world, a more peaceful world.
In addition to being necessarily empathetic, we BXAs are accustomed to trying new things and working really, really hard. There may be a few more all-nighters ahead of us. There are a lot more problems to solve. But I believe in the inventiveness, and integrity, and open-mindedness of this class—of us—and I am so eager to see what we do next.
Congratulations, everyone—parents, professors, advisers: we couldn’t have done it without you, and students: we did it. Now we have a lot more to do.